Keith Rowe – SeptemberDecember 6, 2012
Keith Rowe’s most recent contribution to the Erstwhile label is a live recording of his New York performance from 11/9/11, a concert that coincided with the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The recording is, predictably, superb, if incredibly tense. In his eighth decade now, Rowe has reached a stage with his music in which every second seems vital, every gesture loaded with meaning, hidden meaning and then a further meaning on top, and above all he is making music that could only be made by Keith Rowe. This isn’t so say that he is unique in working at such a level, merely that he has taken his work to a point that it has almost formed its own language, rules and structures that belong purely to himself. This is one of a few reasons why, in my opinion, I think that Rowe’s primary value to music from here on in is probably going to be as a solo artist. His duos with John Tilbury aside, recent collaborative works have not, for me at least, hit anywhere near the same heights as his solo releases, and on the few occasions I have seen him perform live over recent years the solos have stood head and shoulders over the sets performed with others. It is as if his musical language, which has developed into something between improvisation and an internal narrative as composition amalgam has become so well defined, so certain of it own way forward that it just doesn’t adapt well to others any longer. There is no room to stray off of what is clearly a very powerfully delineated path lined with references to great painters and composers almost entirely long dead. Rowe’s genuinely felt disdain for the vast majority of modern improvisation has perhaps left him with fewer friends or potential collaborators amongst the music’s community anyway, but perhaps this is a good thing, and that his creative energies should now be piled into building on what is an immensely powerful body of solo work to see just how far it can go.
So September is, as we might expect, a powerful, emotional wrench of an album. At a base, descriptive level, it blends short, viciously sharp attacks at his tabletop guitar with a lot of radio grabs and a series of long portions of the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s second piano quartet, one of a series of pieces of classical music, usually chamber works that regularly grab Rowe and force their way into his work, though usually not so literally as to be played directly into the performance as a significant, predetermined part of the music as is the case on September. A recent Rowe solo set is an intense, harrowing listening experience at the best of times, but couple such an affair with the obvious significance of playing on the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks on New York, in the city itself and the end result is quite extraordinary. The Dvořák winds its way through the thirty-five minute piece as, apparently, a reference to memory and loss, cutting out two or three times, subsumed in brutally abrasive interference and stabs at the guitar and bits of radio, presumably Rowe bringing the city of New York into the performance. So we hear bits of pop music running for a while (The Police, EMF) and several grabs from spoken word radio that all seem, perhaps unsurprisingly to discuss the events of a decade earlier. It is all woven together with intensely pregnant silences and abrasive attacks that feel a bit like those moments when you are jolted awake from a bad dream- jarring interventions into already unsettling melancholy.
There will of course be streams of symbolism, mostly known only to Rowe running through the events of September. The sleeve design includes a photo of a vaguely guitar based drawing by Rowe that will have constituted some kind of a score for the performance. Events in the recording will have occurred for particular reasons, with much thought and the accumulated experience of many years working towards this point informing the music. Stunningly intense, this CD works well for me personally when considered as part of a line of solo works by Rowe that each progress onwards from the last but each builds on his personal musical language and approach to a performance. Almost like a genre of its own, his music seems to operate along its own, instantly recognisable but increasingly powerful route, and I look forward to the next instalment eagerly.